None of us are immune to the impact of the unexpected. You can start a rainy day fund, make sure your car is regularly inspected, and go to the doctor for those annual check-ups, but the unexpected will find you. When it does, all the preparation in the world won’t stop that initial moment when all you can do is say “Damn.”
Horror has long been based on the impact of the unexpected. We often attribute the unexpected to simple jump scares, but it’s deeper than that. Horror takes us to that initial moment of defeat where we’ve temporarily forgotten everything but the feeling of being helpless. In many ways, the masters of the horror genre are those who are able to make us prisoners of that moment by ensuring we are aware of the unexpected but never quite prepared for it.
So far as that goes, there have been few better vehicles for horror in the last twenty years of gaming than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid.
Much of Metal Gear Solid was unexpected. While the original Metal Gear sold reasonably well, it wasn’t one of those games of the era that was part of most people’s childhood memories. Besides, the game was so heavily altered by the time that it reached the West that you could argue many outside of Japan at that time never really got to play it. As for Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake…well, that game wasn’t even released in the West in any form. Instead, we got Snake’s Revenge, a side-scrolling action game that ends with the United Nations declaring World Peace Day.
The point is that the PlayStation appealed to a broader demographic of players who almost certainly weren’t aware of the Metal Gear series and weren’t inherently interested in the game based on the fact that it was a sequel. Even if they were, there was very little that could prepare them for what Metal Gear Solid was. It has been described as the first modern video game, and at the very least, Metal Gear Solid’s incredible cutscenes proved that games were finally capable of providing the kind of cinematic storytelling experience that had turned movies into the benchmark of visual storytelling.
Playing Metal Gear Solid made you realize that games could finally be “just like the movies.” Commercials for other PlayStation games had teased such an accomplishment, but they often separated the cinematic from the interactive. Meanwhile, many of Metal Gear Solid’s cutscenes were either told through the in-game engine or were woven into the title’s stealth gameplay in such a way that made the whole thing feel cohesive.
Yet, as cohesive as Metal Gear Solid’s story was and as familiar as its cinematic storytelling may have been, it remains one of the PlayStation’s most surprising and downright weird narrative experiences. What begins as the largely simple tale of a spy who has to infiltrate a military base that has been overrun by terrorists becomes a careful philosophical observation of war, humanity, and science. Metal Gear Solid lured us in with a familiar action movie-like premise – even the game’s commercials greatly simplified the game’s premise – before smothering us with an incredibly deep video game story delivered through revolutionary means.
Where Metal Gear Solid got truly weird, though, are the moments in which Kojima and crew dipped their toes into the horror genre.
Much like how Metal Gear Solid’s weirdness is slowly introduced to the player, the game’s horror elements are not made immediately apparent. Actually, both aspects of the game are arguably brought to the forefront during a scene in which DARPA Chief Donald Anderson, one of the hostages you’re tasked with saving during your infiltration mission, starts to violently convulse from an apparent heart attack. In and of itself, there is nothing too horrific about the scene besides the obvious horror of watching a man die. What makes it unnerving is both the suddenness of the incident and the fact that your contacts seem confused by Anderson’s death. Until now, you and your associates have all been presented as some of the most capable espionage figures in the world. The fact that they can’t seem to comprehend this seemingly simple event clues you into the idea that there’s something happening here beyond a twist in the story.
Rather than allow that moment to linger and fester, Kojima gives us “a blood flowing out of the elevator” introduction to Metal Gear Solid’s horror just shortly after Anderson’s demise: the first appearance of Psycho Mantis.
The first time we are properly introduced to Psycho Mantis, he is floating in the air. The screen’s filter alters to let us know what we already suspect: this…thing is something different than what we’ve seen before. Snake’s contact describes Mantis as a psychic – and even tries a bit of Star Trek technobabble by describing the vision as a feedback loop – but her calmness only makes the appearance of Mantis all the more unnerving.
Mantis is the game’s direct link to the world of pure horror. Actually, he’s (appropriately) more of a medium. He is the bridge between the (mostly) real world of Metal Gear Solid (terrorists, spies, governments, etc.) and a supernatural world that we cannot quite explain. The fact that the game tries to apply some of that real-world logic to his existence makes him all the more horrifying. He is grounded in this believable world, yet also not entirely tethered to it. Perhaps this is why he floats when we first see him.
Mantis’ ability to transcend worlds becomes even more terrifying during the legendary boss fight encounter with him. It is there that Mantis not only breaks free of the world established by Metal Gear Solid but manages to enter the world of the player. He asks you to put your controller on the ground then makes it move. He “reads your mind” and is able to tell you how cautious you are and what your favorite games are. He is able to kill the game feed and make “Hideo” appear where the word “Video” usually is. The infamous fight only ends when you finally figure out that the only way to defeat Mantis is by changing which port your controller is in so that he cannot read your mind.
The machinations behind this madness are all rather simple. Your controller moves because the game triggers a particularly strong vibration, but the whole thing doesn’t even make sense if you’re not using a non-vibrating controller. Mantis reads your mind by checking your in-game stats and which Konami games you’ve got on your memory card. As for the controller port thing…well, reading which controller is in which port is something games have done for years. They’re all digital parlor tricks.
That really doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that all of these tricks were, much like Metal Gear Solid’s other innovations, thoroughly unexpected. Vibrating controllers were new. Many gamers didn’t even really know how they worked. Memory cards were fairly new as well. The idea that a game can read and relay information on them in real-time was also something that players weren’t ready for. By taking advantage of what you do knot know and do not expect, Psycho Mantis is able to frighten you in a way that is as sudden and violent as a jump scare but also lingers. The reason we remember this fight is about more than just the gimmicks; it’s because it blindsided us. It’s downright brilliant that, in a game that tells a story about the horrors of technology, Metal Gear Solid‘s most memorable scary moments come courtesy of new technology.
Many of Metal Gear Solid’s other instances of pure horror are designed to feel both shockingly immediate and unshakable. Aside from the Psycho Mantis encounter, the most obvious example of this occurs when the player enters a hallway lined with dead bodies just in time to hear the echoes of a gunshot and witness a dying soldier swear that he has seen a ghost. The “ghost” in question turns out to be a cybernetically enhanced ninja using predator-like cloaking technology. The reveal that he is not overtly supernatural might offer at least some comfort were it not for the fact that the player is expected to follow and fight this monster that has just cut through guards that they have spent the majority of the game hiding from.
The Cyborg Ninja sequence is hardly the end of the moments in which Metal Gear Solid aims to scare you. An encounter in an elevator with numerous invisible guards, a trip into a mostly dark (but densely populated) den of wolves, and a battle against a muscled-up madman who wields a large gun and may or may not be some kind of vengeful spirit are all instances in which Metal Gear Solid utilizes a sudden burst of absolute horror in order to enhance a plot point, sell a threat, or simply make sure you are paying attention. Horror moments like these punctuate the adventure and ensure that any lull in the base gameplay is used as the setup for a great scare.
Of course, even that base gameplay utilizes elements of horror quite effectively. While Metal Gear Solid allows you to defend yourself with a variety of weapons, you’re typically forced to stick to the shadows in order to avoid being detected by guards. It’s “scary” in the same way that many stealth-based titles are scary (which is to say that they’re tense), but that general level of fear is enhanced by those times when Metal Gear Solid reveals that there might indeed be something in those shadows that make them worse than the light.
That’s what makes Metal Gear Solid‘s horror such an integral part of its legacy. At its best, it was a game that delivered the unexpected to a generation of gamers who were thoroughly unprepared. Yet, even as they steeled themselves for that next room of guards and perhaps even grew weary due to the game’s prolific use of those revolutionary cutscenes, it was Metal Gear Solid’s use of horror that kept us on our toes and at the edge of our seats. Even when the game wasn’t trying to be overtly scary, it successfully utilized the base elements of the horror genre to ensure that we were never quite certain we were ready for what was next. It’s certainly no surprise that many of the moments listed above rank among the game’s most memorable.
If you’ve ever wondered why millions felt the gaming world had been robbed of something special when Konami decided to cancel Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills, look not just towards the hauntingly brilliant P.T. but the quietly horrifying Metal Gear Solid. It’s a game that reminds us that we are not only vulnerable to the impact of the unexpected but that it is often the unexpected that creates the most lasting memories.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.